Grace Beahm // The Post and Courier

Former Citadel President Bud Watts accompanies Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as he greets cadets Friday. 'If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I'm not your president,' Romney told about 500 people in Mark Clark Hall.

With a "Believe in America" banner and more than 100 Citadel cadets in the background, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney laid out his vision Friday for America's future role as the world's dominant power.

His speech was aimed at a national audience and attracted dozens of media members. It also marked his second day of politicking in this early primary state -- one where he is running a close second to Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Romney's visits here have stepped up in recent weeks as the state chose a Jan. 21 primary date to keep its First-in-the-South status.

"When America is strong, the world is safer. President Reagan called this 'peace through strength,' and he was never more right than he is today," Romney told about 500 people attended the speech inside The Citadel's Mark Clark Hall.

"This is very simple. If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I'm not your president. You have that president today."

He called the nation's recent foreign policy "feckless."

Democrats fired back, calling Romney's speech a list of generalizations and unfairly critical of President Barack Obama's foreign policy record.

Former Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida called Obama's decision to conduct a raid in Pakistan that killed terror leader Osama bin Laden as "one of the finest moments of presidential leadership in the history of our nation."

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler, who recently taught at The Citadel, said Romney completely discounted Obama's work with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to overhaul the nation's military for the 21st century.

"When you talk in generalizations, which Governor Romney does, you can never rely on exactly what he means when he says it," Fowler said.

Romney said when he was young, America faced a single Cold War enemy in the Soviet Union, while today its threats are more chaotic and diffuse and include: Islamic fundamentalism, the greater Middle East struggle, failing states, and anti-America visions, such as those harbored by the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and North Korea.

"There's no one approach to these challenges," he said. "There is no one wall to ask to be taken down."

Specifically, he vowed to increase the number of U.S. Navy ships built per year from nine to 15, and he also said he would reverse cuts to a national ballistic missile defense system and form a national cyber-security strategy.

Romney also said he would deter Iran's military ambitions by maintaining aircraft carrier task forces in both the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region and would increase military assistance and coordination with Israel.

Charleston businessman Mallory Factor, who is leaning toward Perry, said he heard a lot of generalities but few specifics.

For instance, Factor said he agreed with Romney's call for the United States to have the world's strongest military, "but how do you do that running deficits upon deficits?"

While Romney's speech was well received by many likely GOP voters, many also still seem to be taking U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint's advice to keep an open mind about which Republican presidential hopeful should get the nod.

Charleston County GOP Chairwoman Lin Bennett said Friday she sees no front-runner in the county.

Maraide Sullivan of Johns Island said she thought Romney's speech was good, though she is still looking at other Republican hopefuls.

"He said he wants America to return to being the strongest in the world," she said. "He's not going to apologize for America's exceptionalism."

Cadets at the Romney event who said they would be voting in the Republican primary also liked what they heard.

"He's kind of like a no-nonsense guy," said Steven Woodyard, from Lexington, Class of 2014. He added "I feel like Obama has let the country slip."

Woodyard plans to enter the Army down the road, after graduate school, he said.

Junior Kyle Taylor of James Island said he supported Romney's emphasis on defense and the nation's global standing. He listed him among is top choices in the primary, along with Rick Santorum and Herman Cain.

Robert Seidl of Bloomington, Ill., head of the Citadel Republican Society, called it "a great speech," adding, "Governor Romney clearly seems to support the goal of keeping the United States of America the greatest country on earth, and we absolutely support that opinion."

Friday marked Romney's second day of campaiging in the Lowcountry. South Carolina's GOP presidential primary will be Jan. 21.

Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.